What’s your Working Hypothesis about Life?

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the examples (Sharon, Marvin, and Stan) are hypothetical. The post presents possible speculations and analyses one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

When it comes to your world and other people in general, what is your basic working hypothesis? By that I mean, do you fundamentally believe that the world is OK, or does it stink? When it comes to others, how is your default key labeled, “Trust” or “Mistrust”?

Sharon answers those questions, “Basically, I think people are out for themselves. If I get in the way, they’ll take advantage of me. Let’s face it, when you get down to it – unless you’re talking about a really close friend or family member – people can’t be trusted.”

Marvin sees his world a little differently: “Yeh, the world is OK. Sure, there are some losers and you have to watch out for them, but I believe that overall, people are good inside and can be trusted.

The renowned psychologist, Erik Erikson, maintained that a basic working hypothesis about the world is formed during your first year of life, when you are totally dependent on others for comfort and nourishment. If your caregivers are reliable, loving, and supportive, you are likely to develop a sense of trust in others and a belief that the world is a positive place. If, on the other hand, caregivers are cold, rejecting, unreliable, and uncaring, you are more likely to form the working hypothesis that the world, and those in it, are unreliable and you should not trust them.

The long-term effects of your initial working hypothesis can be substantial. Stan was raised by a critical, demanding, and verbally abusive mother. Most of the time, whatever family members did or didn’t do was simply not good enough for her. No matter how hard they worked, she demeaned their efforts and achievements.As Stan grew older, he harbored much anger toward his mother, but paradoxically found himself drawn toward women like her. He was accustomed to her type of treatment and, quite frankly, wouldn’t know what to do with an accepting, supportive, loving woman. Even though mom’s behavior was difficult to cope with, there was a comfort level with her predictability.

Stan’s first marriage ended in divorce. He didn’t see that the marriage was a continuation of his battles with his mother, and that his anger toward his mom was displaced onto his wife. After the divorce Stan entered a mutually-abusive relationship with a girlfriend, which lasted only a few months. Stan was incapable of establishing a loving bond with a woman because his deep anger toward his mother kept defining the relationship.

Early emotional deprivation often causes one to be drawn to people who are emotionally unavailable. When emotionally-deprived while young, as adults they tend to run from partners who are consistently warm, giving, nurturing, and loving. Such supportive social signals are aversive because of the uncertainty those signals produce about how to behave. Warmth and love make them feel uncomfortable and undeserving. Guilt, shame, and helplessness can result, and they develop an ambivalence toward life. Stan says, “I want to live, but a part of me wants me to die. It would be fine with me if I get sick and die. What’s the big deal?”

Let’s take two messages from this discussion. First of all, repeated experiences in childhood – such as habitual rejection – can produce a working hypothesis that the world is untrustworthy, and that premise can have long-term negative consequences that extend well into adulthood. Second, those negative consequences need not be inevitable, and need not last forever. Yes, Stan’s adult road will be a lot rockier than someone’s whose early childhood was not characterized by emotional rejection, but Stan is not bound by chains from which there is no escape. That’s what coping is all about: adjusting, adapting, changing direction, surviving, and being accountable for the choices you make. That last aspect is very important; that is, it will do you no good to blame your present conflicts on those from your past.

Stan entered counseling, and became aware of his anger toward his mom, an anger that persisted but subsided a bit. He became aware of his tendency to choose women “like mom,” and how that tendency was self-destructive for him. He began to work with his therapist to understand the value of more “appropriate” women – that is, women who were not so demanding, critical, and confrontational like mom – and try to develop a mature, mutually supportive relationship with them. It was a high hurdle for Stan because a lifetime of avoidance patterns is hard to overcome, but high hurdles can be vaulted, as long as you are willing to accept  the challenge they present.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: